Thursday, July 09, 2009

Trumping Culture

Tibor R. Machan

Several acquaintances of mine have a tendency to explain or even justify what they say and do by reference to culture. "In my culture we do this." So just hush about it already, even if by other, widely accepted standards the thinking and conduct are wrong.

For example, some people, hailing from certain parts of the globe, believe in corporeal punishment of their kids, good and hard. Even minor infractions are treated with what by certain standards would be considered brutality. But when this is protested, one often gets the response that, well, that is how things are done in the perpetrator's culture and who is to say who is right.

I can speak here from personal experience. My Hungarian father believed in beating me anytime he found what I said or did objectionable. No, it wasn't enough to try to persuade me of his stance, to defend his standards in the face of their being challenged. Nor was it sufficient to ground me or doc my allowance or something similarly mild. What he did is clench his fist and hit me in the face and wherever he thought it would hurt badly. One time he brought home a plastic rod from an industrial exhibition with the triumphant exclamation that now, finally, he has something with which to beat me without having to hurt his own fists.

There are stories like this in the histories of many families, of course, some more and some less severe. But it goes further than that. Many people today, at least in certain countries, consider various treatments of animals totally unacceptable. Bull fighting, which is so closely linked to Latin culture, is denounced as wantonly cruel, nothing less. Dog fighting, which has been in the news recently right here in America, is another case in point, or cock fighting just across the border many places in Mexico.

In my case I finally ran away, on my 18th birthday, and despite trying to force me to come home from the high school I was attending, my father was rebuffed by the authorities--I was now of age and could do as I chose in this country. And for me the abuse went so far as to make it worth embarking upon a life of my own, even in a brand new country where I was still quite a stranger. For others, however, the cost-benefit calculation is more problematic--they may not be abused so badly as to make it worth their while to simply bolt and set off on their own. It's too risky, scary, so they will often stick around and put up with the culturally justified treatment. Some battered wives know of this very well.

What elements of a culture are, as it were, optional, which are over the top, unacceptable? For animal rights activists bull fighting is over the top; for children's rights activists beating a kid just will not cut it, no way. What about vegetarianism? Is it optional? Some think so and would certainly restrain anyone who would try to force others not to kill and eat animals. Others have no tolerance for meat eating and would gladly force anyone to desist, never mind consent.

This isn't the place to try to resolve any particular cultural conflict. But it is possible to observe that the idea that something is justified by one's culture is quite problematic. Draconian measures of cruelty against women and dissidents are deployed in the name of this very dubious "justification" (or is it rationalization?). Moreover, even those who like to invoke culture to justify their own thinking and conduct often do not accept this from others whose thinking and conduct they find detestable.

The matter harks back all the way to ancient Greece where the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, among others, were deeply concerned about what are matters that are subject to diverse treatments--maybe customs or methods of educating the young--and what cannot be left subject to such diversity--homicide, lying, slavery, and so on. Their attempted solution was to find a common standards of human conduct in an understanding of human nature, something they held to be stable and thus transcending cultures.

The basic solution these thinkers--and many others throughout human history--proposed is that from an understanding that human beings are distinctive in the world by virtue of being able to reason, their conduct must conform to this fact, must be reasonable. That leaves room for a great deal of variety but it also precludes certain ways of acting. Mostly it precludes the use of physical force among people to reach agreement or pseudo-cooperation. Being civilized means using one's reasoning ability to persuade others--or to be persuaded--of what is right. The rest is barbaric.
Yes, Roger Federer is Human

Tibor R. Machan

Roger Federer--who is the most successful tennis player in the recorded history of the game and who won his 15th grand slam championship on Sunday, July 5th at Wimbledon--is, contrary to suspicions voiced by Roger Cohen, of The New York Times, in a column titled "Roger Federer Unbuttoned"--is a human being. Cohen's column is mildly funny but also a bit disturbing for its hint at what seems like a serious endorsement of misanthrope.

Cohen argues that Roger Federer is such a good tennis player that, well, he couldn't be human and must be some kind of cyborg. (He adduces as one piece of evidence that Federer's shirt button never came undone throughout his match with Andy Roddick (who gave his all and still lost in this marathon match--5 sets with the final one going to 16-14). So what? Maybe his shirt was well constructed--by human beings--and so it withstood all the twists and turns it was put through in the match!

That's what bugs me about Cohen's piece; it intimates that for someone to be as good a tennis player as Roger Federer is--so excellent at the game as well as comporting himself in nearly flawlessly civilized fashion over his adult career--one cannot be human. Of course it is a joke but it does suggest a sad perspective on human beings. It seems to reflect a dominant modern misanthropic idea, given ample exemplification in the arts where the anti-hero is pretty much the norm these days, at least so far as the connoisseurs would have it.

To their chagrin, it seems, Roger Federer and many other athletes--Michael Phelps, the Olympiad swimmer, and a host of basketball players come immediately to mind--just cannot be human. And so when they turn out to be, it has to be something bizarre. (Often promoters of this misanthropic outlook would seem to be just waiting for the greats to fall in some way or another, lest they undermine their grim philosophy!)

Excellence, by its very nature, is something rare. So are heroes and geniuses. But all of it is every bit as human as are the opposites. That's because human nature is not wired either for superiority or inferiority. People are born pretty much having the capacity to excel or to fail and most will very likely hover somewhere in between. A bell shape curve captures it well. Now and then this picture is upset either by the sudden emergence of incredible and widespread excellence or its opposite. History, I think, bears me out. In fact, for my money, there is probably evidence of a slight upward incline over the long haul, although judging by the 20th century I could be way off.

However this plays, it is wonderful to have, here and there, examples of superior human performance in many spheres of life, sometimes even in all of them at once. That, I believe, is the more accurate picture of the human situation instead of the notion that excellence must be something artificial, which is what Mr. Cohen seems to have suggested with his admittedly lighthearted essay. Because it was lighthearted I maybe making too much of it for the worse. Yet, for me the suggestion that human beings couldn't possibly manage greatness, even at tennis, is upsetting. With all of the challenges they face around them, often brought about by the hopefully temporary triumph of the worst among us, they need to be reminded of just the opposite, namely, that with focus, effort, and a bit of luck they can manage well--and maybe manage at times superbly--living their human lives.

No, there is no way to engineer human beings to be excellent. This is precisely what makes them so human--however they turn out is to a large measure their own doing, following their beliefs and choices. But encouragement from their fellows is no small part of the total picture here. So discouragement could be a serious impediment, one no one needs right now (or ever). (And, by the way, cyborgs are human artifacts--human-machine systems--and follow the law of garbage in, garbage out!)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Gratitude and Bailouts

Tibor R. Machan

Business Week reports--in the July 13 & 20, 2009, issue, on page 22--that Assistant Professor Randle Raggio of Louisiana State University has written, for the Harvard Business Review, a case study of "whether bailout recipients should say thanks." This kind of exercise is a puzzle.

Exactly how a case study can determine the answer to the question being posed is unclear. Perhaps expressing such "gratitude" is but a possible exercise in public relations for it has nothing to do with a genuine show of gratitude. So if by "should" is meant, "will be welcome by some taxpayers," I suppose the exercise makes some sense.

What does not make any sense at all is to consider the gesture a show of genuine gratitude since the taxpayers didn't dig into their own resources and provide the bailout of their own free will, not by a long shot. What most but not taxpayers did is to tolerate having taxes be used for this purpose. (Remember that many of them took part in "tea parties" to show their disapproval.)

Even if one were to believe the lie that taxes are something that citizens choose to pay, on the question of what ought to be done with the taxes they have very little say. At best they have a way of indicating, after the fact, whether what Congress and other political bodies do with the money they extort from citizens is spent in acceptable ways, without much protest. Sure, they can vote members of Congress out of office. But this doesn't happen a lot because those in Congress do a lot besides distribute the loot they collect from the citizenry--often they take other people's money and bring it home to their constituents. And much of what they do is far more visible than their activity of wealth redistribution tends to be. Voting for someone by no means implies agreement with how tax funds are being spent. It may mean merely that this candidate was the least offensive of those running. Or that those who found something wrong with the candidate's voting record just didn't have the time and energy to wage an effective campaign against the individual.

Even the idea that in a democracy legislators have the task to take the resources of the citizenry and spend it as they see fit is highly dubious. Yes, a lot of people think that democracy allows this but that is not a proper democracy at all. What democracy in a free society allows is to vote in those who will decide what laws need to be passed so as to advance the protection of the rights of the citizenry in novel situations--ones the framers could not anticipate. That is the proper scope of democracy in a free society. Anything else amounts to the usurpation of political power.

That said, even if one where to think that taxpayers had anything to do with the decision of how much bailout money ought to be handed out and who ought to receive it, showing them gratitude is disingenuous. Money not given by those who own it to those who want it cannot be given out of generosity. Such money is, plainly spoken, not given but taken. Thanking the taxpayer is like thanking a victim of mugging for the loot he or she taken in the mugging. No good is done that way. Those who received bailout money can only redeem themselves by returning it fast and with interest, but even that would amount not to gratitude but to an gesture of belated justice.

As to whether giving expression of "gratitude" for bailout money Congress handed out makes sense, at best members of Congress might be thanked, although that would be odd, too, since it isn't their money they gave! The bottom line is that the entire exercise of taking the citizenry's resources and handing it out at Congress' discretion ought to be illegitimate in a free society. But I guess such a message isn't going to see the light of day in the pages of the Harvard Business Review, certainly not be an assistant--very likely untenured--professor. By now such prominent publications around the country, let alone the globe, are fully in cahoots with the system that pays no attention whatsoever to the idea that other people's resources aren't Congress's to distribute but their own.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Rights and Animals Again

Tibor R. Machan

That people have rights is an idea that has been around a while--some argue that even Aristotle, who accepted a form of slavery for some, began to reflect on them back in ancient Greece. In time the notion got cleared up a good deal and with John Locke's help, in the 17th century, a full theory of individual human rights emerged.

As someone who was smuggled out of communist Hungary where rights were deemed to be no more than bourgeois prejudices, I have always had a deep concern about whether a country's legal order rests on such rights or on something far less solid and easily manipulated for the benefit of more or less Draconian tyrants. (In time I wrote two entire books, as well as a lot of papers and essays, on the topic.)

There have always been eager critics of individual human rights, for a variety of reasons, mainly because taking them seriously implies a severe reduction of the scope of governmental authority and power. That does not sit well with many people who want to achieve various goals without having to concern themselves about gaining the consent of those whose lives and labors they wish to use to help them do this. They wish to conscript people, not gain their consent, when they want their support and acknowledging individual rights renders this very difficult.

There are however those, too, who want to expand the coverage of individual human rights to include at least the "higher" animals, so that recently, for example, the government of Spain decided to "grant" rights to great apes. There is now a sizable movement, both popular and academic, insisting that animals other than human beings have the very same rights the American Founders mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. They deploy a variety of arguments in support of this idea and I have addressed several of them (in my book Putting Humans First [2004]).

One point I did not make in that work but one that should add a major obstacle efforts to ascribe rights to non-humans is worth laying out, especially now that one of our new president's favorite legal theorist, Professor Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School, is proposing the push for laws that would empower animal rights supporters to sue in court in behalf of the rights of animals just as this is possible to do now vis-a-vis human beings.

Not that there is nothing wrong with abusing animals, with wanton cruelty toward them, and not that this couldn't use a good deal of consideration from thoughtful persons, maybe even legal theorists. But the idea that animals have the rights we human beings do is completely misguided. That's because animals are not moral agents. (There are some indications that here and there some minimal moral awareness is evident in some very few species but these are marginal cases not warranting the ascription of rights! We aren't dealing with geometry here, so borders are sometimes hazy.)

In any event, a big problem with claiming that animals have a moral nature and rights, as human beings do, is that this would wreak havoc with the way animals are treated by us in the wilds. Putting it plainly, animals are not deemed guilty of anything when they kill, maim, devour and brutalize one another, as they do routinely on the high seas, in the desert, and up in the skies. One need but be minimally familiar with how millions of animals behave to appreciate that talk of their guilt or responsibility to be humane to one another, their need to be kind and considerate is utter nonsense. And if animals did have the rights human beings do, that is what would have to be true of them all--they would have to respect one another's rights.

Consider that human rights watchdog agencies around the globe aim to bring governments and legal systems in line with the fact that everyone has basic rights to, for example, life, liberty, property, due process of law, free expression, political participation, and so forth. It matters not where the violations occur because the fact of someone's humanity makes one a rights holder and indicts anyone who violates his or her rights.

If animals had these rights, too, then all of their tormentors in the wilds would have to be indicted, too. But this is nonsense because they aren't subject to moral or legal principles and demanding that they conform to them is entirely off base. Yet if they all had rights and were moral agents that animal rights advocates insist they are--the main advocate, Tom Regan, who wrote The Case for Animal Rights back in 1984, argued that no morally significant difference can be found between people and animals--they would be (a) required to respect the rights of their fellow animals and (b) it would be mandatory to enact legislation for the protection of the rights of animals, ones being violated as a matter of course by other animals. These rights violating animals would have to be treated just like we treat violent criminals--charging them, prosecuting them, and incarcerating them once found guilty.

This is what follows form the claim that animals are just like us only a little less so--sort of like juveniles--in having a moral nature and thus possessing basic rights.

There is much else that could be pointed out that renders animal rights talk highly dubious if not out and out nonsense. But this is a major implication worth being given serious thought.